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Of a Black President, White Children, and Maintaining the Status Quo

Last week proved quite revealing. It began with the conservative hysteria surrounding President Obama’s education speech to the children of America, and it culminated with the extreme right wing 9/12 Tea Party March on Washington this weekend, billed as a gathering of “freedom loving patriots.”

And just when you thought things couldn’t get any more outrageous, U.S. Representative Joe Wilson of South Carolina called the President of the United States a liar during his highly anticipated health care address to a Joint Session of Congress. Wilson has since called his outburst “spontaneous” and regrettable.

President Obama has graciously accepted Wilson’s apology, saying that “everyone makes mistakes” and we should not assume the “the worst in other peoples’ motives.” That’s the expected presidential position, but in view of all that has transpired since the election of President Obama, I think we are in need of what John McCain would call straight talk.

Let me start with news of a just-released book that goes a long way toward explaining the force I see at work here: racism, plain and simple–notwithstanding all the talk of Obama’s “post-racial,” “colorblind” America. I have never bought into either notion, but NutureShock: New Thinking About Children, by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman goes a long way toward dispelling both notions–and I think–explaining the persistence of White supremacy.

The book presents research findings indicating that children recognize differences in skin color by the time they are six months old. More importantly, the researchers found that, were White parents to even slightly adjust the way they introduce the concept of race to their children–by the age of three– real long-term change is possible, “one future citizen at a time.”

No sooner than had Newsweek excerpted the book, a blog thread on, the website that celebrates “White pride, worldwide,” declared that the magazine has launched a “war on White children.”

Specifically, the book highlights the 2007 dissertation findings of Danish researcher Birgitte Vittrup, who recruited, from the database of volunteers for scholarly research at the Children’s Research Lab at the University of Texas, Austin, 100 Caucasian families with children 5-7 years old. Vittrup found that even the most liberal White parents–unlike 75 per cent of “nonwhite” parents–were unwilling to openly discuss race with their children, some even going so far as to withdraw from the study when it reached this critical phase. Among the six families who completed the one week-phase of talking to their young children openly about race, there was “dramatic” improvement in their racial attitudes.

Another UT researcher, Rebecca Bigler, conducted a two-week study in which children read short biographies of famous African-Americans, like Jackie Robinson. She divided them into two groups, one a test group and the other a control group. In addition to the bio information, one group was given a 5-sentence description of the racial discrimination that Robinson endured at the hands of Major League Baseball–and from White people in general. When the children were surveyed to test their racial attitudes, those who had read about prejudice toward Blacks, exhibited a more favorable attitude. “It knocked down their glorified view of White people,” said Bigler.

Perhaps the most fascinating study cited was one in which a mixed group of 33 children in a rural Ohio school, two-thirds White, were exposed to a Black version of ‘Twas the Night B’fore Christmas by Melodye Rosales. When the children saw the Black Santa depicted in the book, their reactions varied. “A couple of the White children rejected this idea out of hand: a Black Santa couldn’t be real.” Most of the Black children were exultant, while some of the White children were stunned and “puzzled.” “‘He’s Black’ gasped a White little girl. A White boy exclaimed, ‘I thought he was White!'”

A little Black boy was perhaps the most difficult to convince of Santa’s Blackness, until he determined that the Black Santa’s boots were “like the White Santa’s boots.” He had to actually have the man raise his pants leg so that he could see his black boots–and his black skin–after which he was thrilled.

Of all the profundities revealed in the book excerpt, I find this one most telling because of what it tells us about how children, very early on, learn to associate power, virtue, and control with Whiteness. That is, left unchecked by parents, society teaches White children a sense of superiority and, conversely, it instills a feeling of inferiority in the minds of young Black children.

Could this be what all the fuss was about from the many White conservatives who screamed bloody murder at the mere thought of the first Black President of the United States (POTUS) delivering a speech, any speech, in their children’s schools? Could it be that many Whites are fully aware of the socializing effect of exposure to power and control–and race? That they know the power of imagery? Thus they make certain that there is no shortage of symbols of White power–and beauty: White Jesus, Snow White, White Santa, White House, White Barbie, and White President of the United States.

And therein, I submit, lies the root of America’s centuries-old “problem of the color-line,” which Du Bois (1903) lamented in his now classic treatise The Souls of Black Folk. Vittrup and Bigler’s research suggests–to this writer– that the core problem is this: The vast majority of Whites, perhaps some even subconsciously, do not want racism–and its attendant White privilege–to end, bottom line.

In view of their findings, then, it should not be surprising that some found President Obama’s decision to deliver a speech to America’s school children–encouraging hard work, educational achievement, and critical thinking–so objectionable. Or that Joe Wilson showed such utter disrespect for President Obama during his health care speech? Or that the media continue to doggedly push this ridiculous notion that “both sides” are out of control?

Basically, I think these “freedom loving patriots” find problematic the idea of their children–and really any children–being exposed to a powerful Black man who commands respect. I’m not sure which possibility they find most frightening, White children accepting Black power– that is, shared control –or a generation of Black children empowered by it.

Dr. Pamela D. Reed is a diversity consultant, cultural critic, and assistant professor of English and African-American literature at Virginia State University.

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